West Montrose Covered Bridge
Click to view a panoramic of the West Montrose Bridge
captured by Neil Patterson of Waterloo Region
On January 17, 1881, Woolwich Council accepted the tender of $3,197.50 from John and Benjamin Bear for a covered bridge at West Montrose. John Bear prepared the plans and specifications for a two-span, covered bridge. The total cost, including the extra work, for building this bridge was $3,557.65. John became a renowned bridge builder after he built the Covered bridge. John Bear was hired by Woolwich Council on October 15, 1880 to inspect the following bridges: the West Montrose bridge over the Grand River, the bridge over the Conestogo River at Daniel Weber’s farm and the gully bridge on the north side of Scheifele’s farm (Waterloo Historical Society Journal, Kathryn Lamb, "West Montrose Covered Bridge," 1977, p27). On November 16 he stated that these bridges should be replaced in the following year (Woolwich Council Minutes, Nov 16, 1881. p280). A number of John Bear’s draughting instruments are part of the museum collection at Doon Heritage Crossroads.
On the 9th day of May, 1883, the tender of George Peppler & Co. to paint the bridge with oil paint for $74.25 was accepted.This information comes from the Elmira Municipal Archives, Box #5-1-2-8. "Bridge Book, with statements of Bridges in the Township of Woolwich, November A.D. 1903. It contains builders, tenders, costs and repairs for every bridge in Woolwich from 1881-1910. . In 1895, a cedar crib was built by M. Richard Boye at a cost of $124.00. In 1900, Bowman and Elliot built a centre pier of stone at a cost of $981.00. The total cost of the bridge was $4,662 (Bridge book, 1903, p36).
The covered bridge was built in 1881. It is the second oldest surviving bridge in the Region. The Mill Creek bridge in Soper Park, Cambridge was built in 1837.
Technology - Materials
In 1881, the West Montrose bridge was constructed entirely out of wood. Over the years, stronger materials have been used when replacing the abutments, piers and deck. Today, the bridge is made of a combination of steel, wood concrete, asphalt and stone. Despite these improvements, the bridge still maintains its original form.
The West Montrose bridge is a two-span, covered bridge. A bridge built entirely out of wood, without any protective coating, would last 10 to 15 years. Builders later discovered that if the bridge’s underpinnings were protected with a roof, the bridge could withstand the wear of the weather for 70, or perhaps 80 years (Waterloo Historical Society Journal, Kathryn Lamb, "West Montrose Covered Bridge," 1977, p25). The specifications for this bridge are available at the Kitchener Public Library’s Grace Schmidt Room and the Elmira Municipal Archives.
John Bear had experience in building local barns, but the West Montrose bridge was his first bridge. His design was most likely used in other building projects but it was not the first covered bridge in Waterloo County. The Shingle Bridge in Blair was the first covered bridge in Waterloo County. The Journal belonging to Samuel B. Bowman has an entry dated Nov. 14, 1835 for labour on the road from the [Blair] Bridge to Erb’s Mill. This means the "Shingle Bridge," which made Blair famous, was in use in 1835 (Robert Ligget, The History of Doon, "The Steel Bridge," 1984, pg 3). It was destroyed in 1857 by a flood.
The appearance of the covered bridge has been preserved, but it has undergone extensive renovations. The West Montrose bridge has been repaired almost every other decade, as required. No records have yet been found as to when the original timber abutments were replaced with concrete (assumed to be after 1900), but all other information has been recorded. In 1904, the bridge was closed for the first time as workmen planked over the original oak floor. The wooden trusses were replaced in 1933. In 1955, the first floor of three-inch oak planking was replaced by longitudinal two-inch planking, a deck of laminated two-by-fours, and a covering of asphalt-bonded crushed stone. In 1959, a Bailey truss bridge, which was recycled from the Second World War, replaced the internal structure. The metal spans were concealed behind wood panelling to maintain the original appearance. The ridge-and-batten boards were tightened in 1971, the roof was re-shingled in 1987, and needle beam extensions were replaced in 1995 and 1996 (Giffels,Ted Brumfett, "Structural Evaluation Report West Montrose Covered Bridge," 1996, p19-20).
Bridge Aesthetics and Environment - Visual Appeal
The West Montrose bridge is the most decorative/colourful bridge in the Region. It is painted red, with decorative interior lamps and a gabled roof. It is an attractive and a well-built structure. Many artists come to West Montrose to capture the pastoral setting surrounding the bridge.
This bridge has a high degree of integrity, and is in its original location.
The West Montrose Covered Bridge maintains a high profile. Most people know what this bridge looks like and where to find it. Large signs on Highway 86 advertise the bridge location. The red bridge stands out against the green meadows and surrounding park area in the summer. The community is identified by the bridge and the residents have placed a symbolic importance upon the structure, often calling it the ‘Kissing Bridge.’
The West Montrose bridge is the gateway dividing the North and South parts of the town. The northern section of West Montrose was developed after Highway 86 was rerouted. Today, the bridge is primarily used by local residents and tourists, and is the entranceway to a small park.
There is a strong bond between the residents and the bridge. The bridge has been involved in many community events, both past and present. The town is identified by the bridge and advertised in many tourism books. The age of the bridge contributes to the pastoral setting of the town.
A notice to bridge-builders was posted in 1880 by John L. Wideman in St. Jacobs, calling for tenders for a covered bridge at West Montrose to span the Grand River. Part of the expense would be covered by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Communications and the remainder by the township of Woolwich. The contract was given to the Bear Bros., John and Benjamin, for a sum of $3,197.50.
John Bear wrote five pages of specifications, written in longhand, to accompany his drawings. The bridge was to be 198 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 13 feet from the low water mark to the top of the corbel. Hardwood was used throughout the structure, but pine was reserved for the rafters. The original timbers were very large, measuring 50 feet long, and 9 to 18 inches thick.
When the bridge was built it measured approximately 208 feet long, 17 feet wide and 13 feet high. Originally, the substructure (pier and abutments) was made of cedar cribs filled with loose stone. The pier consisted of 15 piles driven to a depth of 12 feet, "as far as a hammer of one ton weight will drive them at a rate of one quarter inch to a blow" (John Bear, West Montrose Bridge Specifications, 1881, pg 1). The oak planks were joined with 7 inch wrought iron spikes. The design also called for 20 shutter type windows, like permanent Venetian blinds, admitting air and some light but keeping out rain. According to some of the local residents, however, these windows were never installed, and instead the bridge was originally built with only two windows in the middle.
Early in 1881, the work commenced. The timbers of oak were obtained from the Bridgeport area, and white pine was cut near Blair and Doon. These timbers were prepared at the West Montrose sawmill, owned by W.J. Letson. Daniel Snyder and Joseph S. Snyder were appointed as a committee to ensure the timber was of the best quality, with no splits or loose knots. The bridge was ready for traffic by November 15, 1881. In May 1882, Geo.Peppler and Co. was contracted for $74.25 to cover the new bridge with residual oil and fire proof paint.
In 1885, Daniel S. Snyder procured a coal-oil lamp and placed it inside the bridge. From then on, the villagers maintained the lighting of the bridge. The cost for maintenance in 1886 was $21.10, and $30.50 in 1887. Maintenance included daily cleaning of the glass chimneys and filling the lights with coal-oil. A long pole, equipped with a hook, was used to hoist each light onto a beam 13 feet above the bridge floor. In 1950, three 100-watt bulbs were suspended from the ceiling to replace the old lanterns, but were constantly broken by tall trucks. In the goodwill tradition of the citizens, the County paid for electric lanterns in 1954.
Each winter a local farmer was hired to snow the bridge. This enabled sleighs and cutters to cross the bridge without damaging the oak planks. In 1885, Frank Snyder received $5.00 for this job, $6.50 in 1886, and $8.00 in 1888.
The bridge was recognized as an historic site by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sties Board in 1960. In 1975, the bridge was designated as a heritage site. Photostatic copies of the plans and specifications are available at the Woolwich Township offices, Elmira, and the Waterloo Historical Society archives in the Kitchener Public Library.
The West Montrose bridge is not part of a group of bridges in Waterloo Region. In 1900, New Brunswick had an estimated 400 covered bridges, and Quebec more than 1000, while Ontario only had 5. One was located north of Trenton at Frankford, two in Glengarry County at Williamstown and Martintown, and another located near Napanee. These bridges disappeared a long time ago. The West Montrose bridge is the last covered bridge in Ontario.
Ownership has changed many hands since the bridge was originally built. As stated earlier, Woolwich Township was the original owner, and later it was given to Waterloo County. The Ontario Department of Highways claimed ownership when the Kitchener-Elmira road became King’s Highway No. 86. The County of Waterloo took responsibility for Highway 86 in 1937, but the Ministry of Transportation retained ownership so that the bridge could be properly preserved. In January of 1998, the Ministry passed the ownership to the Regional Municipality of Waterloo.
The West Montrose bridge has always remained the focal point of community activity. In addition to connecting both sides of the village and providing safe passage from Elmira to Guelph, it provided a convenient, dry place for festivals, public speakers, circus posters, merchant advertisements, and even Christmas carollers.
Since it was first built, the West Montrose bridge has been labelled as "the kissing bridge," the traditional toll being a kiss. After all, it was secluded and it was against the law to travel over any bridge faster than a walk. Local girls learned to be wary when their escort’s horse stopped inside the bridge without any command from the driver.
Perhaps Elmira District High School students will have the fondest memories. A photograph taken in November 15, 1952, by the K-W Record, shows a familiar bridge-crossing ritual. After the county imposed a two-ton load limit, the local school bus, weighing more than 13 tons, stopped as it approached the bridge. One student would then cross the bridge and wave a red flag at the other end to stop oncoming traffic. The rest of the students would then cross, and the empty bus followed. As it enters its twilight years, it is remembered by all as a relic of romance, built when the pace of life was bit slower. The familiar heart-shaped graffiti etched in its wood echoes its local name.
Kissing Bridge/West Montrose Covered Bridge
Covered Bridge Dr. 0.1 km North of Rivers Edge Dr. in the village of West Montrose, Township of Woolwich.
General Information - Physical Components
Bridge No. NA
Jurisdiction Regional Municipality of Waterloo
Year built 1881
Drawings KPL, Township of Woolwich
Type Wooden, Covered
Dimensions Length 62.4 m
Width 5.1 m,
Vertical Clearance 3.9 m
Load Limit 3 tonnes
West Montrose Covered Bridge Bibliography
"Ontario’s Last Covered Bridge Back in Service," K-W Record. 7 Oct. 1954.
"Repair Landmark," K-W Record. 16 May 1959.
"Repair Historic Bridge," K-W Record. 17 August, 1954.
"Students leave bus." K-W Record. 15 Nov. 1952.
Bear, John. "Specifications." 1881. Kitchener Public Library. Grace Schmidt Room. WHS vertical files, Covered and Carlisle Bridge.
Craig, Jeff. "Unique Bridges: Testament to Pioneer Spirit," Sparetime. Oct. 1986.
Giffels. Structural Evaluation Report West Montrose Covered Bridge. Kitchener, Ontario. 1996.
Lamb, Kathryn Lamb."West Montrose Covered Bridge,"WHS. 1977, p27.
Ligget, Robert. "The History of Doon: The Steel Bridge." Cambridge Archives, 1984.
Reitz, Thomas. "Covered Bridges: Spanning Rivers with Elegance and Shelter." Doon Collections. Covered Bridge vertical file.
Township of Woolwich. Clerks Department. "Township Council Minutes". 1881. [manuscript]
Township of Woolwich. Clerks Department. "Bridge Book" 1903 [manuscript]
Zacher, Susan. M. The Covered Bridges of Pennsylvania: A Guide, Harrisburg: the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1989, the official guide.